Psalm 123
I Thessalonians 5:1-11

As the members of the bell choir – and Taylor who was up here with me – would attest, I was a little wobbly last Sunday morning. A friend roped me into running a half marathon in Charlotte last Saturday. I try and stay in decent enough shape, but this is not something I would normally do – my legs have been reminding me of this reality all week. But I will tell you, as a relative newbie to the culture of big races like this, the church has a lot to learn. We have a lot to learn about welcome. We have a lot to learn about community. We have a lot to learn – and here’s the language of today’s text – a lot to learn about encouragement.

One thing that was absolutely stunning to me about this big Charlotte marathon and half marathon was how well everyone encouraged each other the entire time. It was 29 degrees when we began, and the streets were lined with neighbors and friends. About three-quarters of a mile in as the crowd was working its way through uptown, you heard the booming voice before you could make out the words. You got close and you could…deep and strong…over and over and over, this big gentleman was standing on the corner…. “Jesus loves you!” “Run for Jesus!” “Jesus loves you!” “Run for Jesus!” In the crowds, he offered his proclamation. People gave each other high-fives as they ran. Many folks, lining the streets, were there to support someone, but many others just seemed to be around to watch and cheer folks on. As we got into the tree-lined neighborhoods south of uptown, families would come out to the end of their driveways to tell us all ‘good job! Keep going!’ Friends made posters. Kids lifted hands to offer a high-five as we huffed and puffed by. “You got it!” “Great work!” (Even when some of us were most decidedly not doing super work!) Stations of people dressed up in funny costumes. People playing music. “You can do it!” “You’re almost there!” “Go, go, go!” It was, especially when you are tired and cold and wondering why in the world this was a good idea, overwhelming. It got me thinking about the power of this little, foolish thing – encouraging each other. If someone has reached out to you, noticed you, supported you, you know what I mean. It matters.

The city of Thessalonica was named for Alexander (The Great)’s half-sister Thessaloniki, founded in 316 BCE.[1] It was the capital of the province of Macedonia – a big, diverse, cosmopolitan place. Dated around the year 50 CE, this is the earliest of Paul’s letters, and thus the earliest Christian document in the Bible.[2] Here Paul uses the form he’ll use in the ones to follow: an extended greeting and words of gratitude, their steadfast love and hope in the Lord highlighted. In chapters two and three Paul reaches back to his time with them, thanking God for the courage and strength given both to Paul and to their community. Later on Paul sent Timothy to check in. He brought an encouraging report, but also news of distress that some members had died, since the new church had apparently understood that Christians would all live to experience the return of Christ. First Thessalonians is Paul’s letter in response to Timothy’s report.[3]

We are 20 years since Jesus’ death and resurrection, since His ascension and the beginning of the movement that would become the church. A handful of times in the gospels Jesus says to his disciples that no one will know the day or the hour when Christ will return (Luke 12:38-40, Matthew 24:35-39). But there is also a clear sense that that moment would be soon, not long, any minute. Keep awake, Jesus says to them, in the parable Taylor preached on last week and in other places. Pay attention! It’s coming! Keep awake! But it has been 20 years, and members of those first Christian communities are coming towards the end of their lives, and folks are beginning to get anxious. If Jesus’ return is imminent, and we are to be ready any moment, what about our brothers and sisters, family members, folks in the heart of the community, who have died? What about them? Are they included? Remember, this is a brand new movement, early on. You can see how afraid they would be? My mother has died. Will I see her again?

Paul writes to offer encouragement. Right before he tries to calm their nerves, telling them that first those who have died will rise, then in 4:17: “…we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.” “Therefore,” he writes, “encourage one another with these words.” He does the same thing in 5:1-11, toward the end of the letter. The Lord will return, like a thief in the night, but you don’t need to spend any time at all worrying about it. You’ll be surprised! Until then, though, trust. You, the faithful – Paul appeals to them as the “insiders,” the “children of the day,” – stay awake. Stay aware. Stay attuned to the world, and how you are called to follow Jesus. Don’t slip back into the habits of the world around you, the world that worships the idols and greed and cynicism.

Until then, “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For  – and this is great news and really important – “God has not destined us for wrath but for… salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.” God has called us in love. God has chosen us for salvation – God’s choice, not ours, not something we do or something we earn. We are called to trust in the love of God that is stronger and deeper and wider than anything we can imagine. Hold on to THAT, Paul says. And you’ll be okay.

Then, Paul says, encourage one another with this promise. Paul tells them to ‘encourage one another’ 8 times in this letter.[4] This encouragement is paired with building each other up, the greek for building is oikodomeo, the root is oikos, for house or household, the root of our word economics. To put up, literally to construct. Paul is saying to these anxious people, in a world of so much change in a society where there is deep temptation to worship so many things. Trust in who God is. Trust in God’s mercy, God’s power. Not in you, your gifts and skills, not in what you can do or believe, not in the best you have or the worst mistake you have ever made. Life and love, and all creation, belong to God. Nothing else works if it’s not built on that.

Grounded in grace, we are called to encourage each other. Here’s where I want to speak to you in a very personal way. It is really easy to tear others down. Really easy. We all do it all the time, whether we mean to or not. We make a snide comment. We roll our eyes. We fire an email or a comment or a tweet. We are taught and trained to take other people’s arguments apart, break them down, find the holes. We’re all pretty smart at that. But, to be honest, finding holes in what someone else thinks isn’t all that hard. It’s not. What is – and this is what I am convinced Paul is saying to us – is encouraging, building others up, building the community up. That doesn’t mean we turn a blind eye to problems, that doesn’t mean we let everything hard go or avoid conflict. In our lives, or work, or in the church. But it means that all of those questions are asked with an eye towards encouragement. An eye towards building each other up.

So this week I need you to pay attention. Someone around you is going to annoy you. It will happen very soon, maybe even before you leave church today. Likely before the day is over. Almost certainly in the scurrying around in our last minute holiday preparations. It’s amazing how stressed out we get about a holiday that exists to remind us to be grateful. But something will happen. Something around you, maybe someone says something. Maybe you see something on the news. A family or friend forgets something you wanted them to do. Or, even more than that, you’ll see someone struggling. Someone who you can tell is just barely getting by. Worn out, tired. Grieving. And you will have an opportunity to offer encouragement. Not in a flip, “you’re doing great,” when someone really isn’t. Not in a way that is duplicitous or inauthentic or untrue. But to look at someone and offer encouragement. This is a very small thing, a foolishly small thing. But if someone has ever truly encouraged you, you know it matters. You can do it. I believe in you. You are loved. We’ve got your back. You have gifts that are real. You matter. It really is good to see you, you are special to me.

Grounded in God’s love, God’s hope, God’s everlasting promises, might we bear witness to this grace one to another. “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing,” Paul writes. May it be so. May it be so. Amen.

[1] The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XI, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), p 675.

[2] Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2004), p 635.

[3] Boring and Craddock, 635.

[4] Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 by Karoline Lewis. I am grateful for this from the Rev. Jarrett McLaughlin’s paper on this text at The Well, 2011, Austin, Texas.